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East River, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2015

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Imagining a New York City ravaged by climate change

Authors of so-called “climate fiction” envision a drowned, dystopian NYC, but that reality is closer than ever

In the centuries since its founding, New York City has been destroyed countless times. It has been inundated by tsunamis, frozen in a new Ice Age, crushed by atomic-age monsters, and left abandoned as a playground for inmates, zombies, apes, and aliens. Each of these fictional catastrophes, presented in a book or film, reflected the fears of its times, but now the city faces one of its most serious challenges, with authors, artists, urban planners, and scientists sharing a common vision of a future that will be shaped by cataclysmic floods, storms, and sea-level rise.

“America’s writers and imagemakers have pictured New York’s annihilation in a stunning range of ways…. No city has been more often destroyed on paper, film, or canvas, and no city’s destruction has been more often watched and read about than New York’s,” writes Max Page in his 2008 book The City's End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York's Destruction. “But destruction of the environment—soiling our own nest—took greater hold on the imaginations of writers and filmmakers. Nature as New York’s destroyer is one of the most persistent of themes.”

The latest genre to focus on New York City’s destruction at the hands of Mother Nature is the newly emerging field of “cli-fi,” or climate fiction. Several recent cli-fi novels have explored the ways climate change could drastically damage the city’s landscape.

The newest of these books is New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the deans of modern science fiction, who presents a future where the glaciers have melted and the city has been flooded by 50 feet of water. As it turns out, this vision of the post-apocalyptic city is not much different than today.

East River, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2015.

Sweeping in scope, New York 2140 presents a tangled array of characters and subplots from around the world, including a rollicking adventure story about the assisted migration of polar bears via high tech blimps, a treasure hunt for gold under the East River, and a short-lived romance consummated by a steamy session in a boat floating over the submerged ruins of Governors Island.

The author’s main interest, though, is not climate change but economics, and the novel focuses on real estate deals, marketplace machinations, and the redistribution of wealth via the nationalization of banks and asset taxes.

At over 600 pages, New York 2140 does not lack for ambition, and the narrative is packed with broadly sketched ideas about what the future might look like, from floating island townships and sky villages to musings on the vagaries of intertidal property investment. But when it comes to exploring specific ideas for how a flooded city could survive, its vision of the future is not particularly far-fetched—or innovative.

The underwater foundations of older buildings are protected by something called “diamond sheeting”; residents travel around the city via a jury-rigged system of walkways, bridges, and small watercraft; vegetables are grown on rooftops; and there are no real coastal defenses left to speak of, having been inundated long before.

Ultimately, life in New York 2140 is not remarkably different from the city’s present-day reality, other than the hassles of flooded streets and collapsing buildings. Food, drink, and drugs are plentiful enough, co-op meetings are a grinding pain, and rush-hour traffic is a drag.

Robinson’s flooded New York is a fairly cheery place, unlike, say, the brain-wilting tropical apocalypse envisioned in J. G. Ballard’s classic 1962 science fiction novel The Drowned World. But few authors can match Ballard’s stark prose, especially when it comes to exploring the collapse of civilization.

Hudson River, Upper West Side, 2009.

A more immediate cli-fi precursor to New York 2140 is author Lev AC Rosen’s 2015 novel Depth, another lightly dystopian vision of a flooded New York City, where the waters have now reached the 21st floor. Like Robinson’s novel, Depth is also an enjoyable romp through a comfortably pleasant post-apocalypse, and also plays with popular genre tropes, in this case digging into the pulpy cliches of the hard-boiled detective novel.

Rosen’s version of the future is more akin to the 1930s and ’40s world of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler: There are tough private eyes, a mysterious client in a fur coat, a cold blonde, booze and cigarettes, rainy nights, and the darkness of classic film noir. And like New York 2140, it imagines a city quite similar to our current one, but with more water, including hot dog vending boats, virtual-reality bowling alleys, and a floating Chinatown.

Gravesend Bay, Brooklyn, 2004.

When it comes to exploring how the specific geography of New York City could be affected by climate change in the future, both New York 2140 and Depth lack any real consideration of neighborhoods outside Manhattan. This is an unfortunate omission, because many of these communities are currently on the front lines of sea-level rise and contain some of the most interesting climate projects now being realized in the city.

To fully investigate the future of sea-level rise in New York City, you have to leave Manhattan. Yet in New York 2140, the outer boroughs are mostly just handled with a glance towards the coastline of Queens, a quick glimpse into the ruins of the South Bronx, a dinner in Brooklyn Heights, a boat trip out to Coney Island to view a beach reclamation project, and no interest whatsoever in exploring Staten Island.

New York Harbor near Sunset Park, 2017.

In reality, sea-level rise and climate change are not part of some distant future version of New York City, but are already radically reshaping the urban coastline, especially in Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn. Here, neighborhoods like Edgemere, Oakwood Beach, and Ocean Breeze are being demolished to make way for a managed retreat from the rising waters, while in Sea Gate, Breezy Point, and Broad Channel Island, large-scale projects are underway to build coastal defenses, elevate homes, and raise streets levels.

None of these communities make an appearance in New York 2140. Perhaps this is because they are predicted to vanish under the water by the end of the century. Yet the ways in which they are preparing for a flooded future are worthy of deeper consideration.

Wall mural (artist unknown) in Greenpoint, 2010.

A more prescient take on how climate change could immediately affect New York can be found in Nathaniel Rich’s gripping 2013 cli-fi novel Odds Against Tomorrow, which was written in the years before Hurricane Sandy. In the book, an intense period of drought is followed by torrential rains and a Category 3 hurricane named Tammy, which decimates the entire East Coast. Survivors struggle out of New York City by canoe, confronted by scenes of horrific devastation. Grand Central is filled with floating corpses, Randall’s Island becomes a dysfunctional refugee camp, and large swaths of Brooklyn are wiped off the map.

The final sections of Rich’s novel offer a grimly realistic take on the aftermath of a city destroyed by flooding. As the authorities struggle to cope with millions of refugees, Manhattan is soon pumped dry and reopened. But in the outer boroughs, PTSD-affected survivors begin to reclaim a scoured landscape now called the Dead Zone, an area that will likely never be redeveloped by the government. This is Flatlands, Brooklyn, one of the neighborhoods most at risk of cataclysmic damage from sea-level rise in today’s New York.

Oakwood Beach marshland, Staten Island, 2016

For a more nuts-and-bolts look at what the future could be in neighborhoods facing sea-level rise, readers may be better served by looking outside the climate fiction genre. A series of new works, taking the form of creative portfolios and monographs, is now being published by some of the city’s top architects and urban planners. Within these vibrant, well-researched proposals are detailed visions for some of the most forward-thinking, creative ideas of what New York City’s coastline could look like in the future.

These titles includes new works like Toward an Urban Ecology by Kate Orff, the founder of SCAPE; Waterproofing New York, edited by Denise Hoffman Brandt and Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, associate professors at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York; and 2100: A Dystopian Utopia / The City After Climate Change by Vanessa Keith, the Principal of StudioTEKA. Their ideas for the future include oyster reefs off the coast of Staten Island, inflatable barriers and hybrid parks at the mouth of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, and a host of other richly imagined projects throughout all five boroughs, which could actually reshape the city’s coastline far into the future, overshadowing the imagined worlds of cli-fi.

Rockaway Boardwalk in Edgemere, Queens; 2013.

Of course, the future destruction of New York City is never a given, and many visions of its demise have failed to come to pass. Perhaps there is some as-yet-unknown way that sea-level rise can be abated, or that glacial melt can be halted. Perhaps we can ward off catastrophic storms and flooding through new technology or better walls. In the interim, as we wait for the next storm to pass, climate fiction can help us consider our deeper concerns about the future.

“Each era in New York’s modern history has produced its own apocalyptic imagery that explores, exploits, and seeks to resolve contemporary cultural tensions and fears,” writes Max Page in The City's End. “We destroy New York on film and paper to escape the sense of inevitable and incomprehensible economic transformations, by telling stories of clear and present dangers, with causes and effects, villains and heroes, to make our world more comprehensible than it has become.”

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

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